Wednesday, February 13, 2008

What to Eat? It depends on whether you are a cat...

I won't even pretend that these two books are related at all, so I'll just jump into this post.

First of all, I recently wrapped up Michael Pollan's excellent In Defense of Food. I've blogged occasionally here about my growing nerdy obsession with food and cooking. This book acts as kind of a capstone to my gradual transformation into a Bay Area foodie: it reaffirms a lot of the habits that I've accidentally slipped into, gives me encouragement, and frees me from feeling like I need to worry about what I'm putting into my body. It does all this while presenting an occasionally funny but always strong criticism of "nutritionism," the modern tendency to focus on the invisible ingredients in our food that we don't understand.

Backing up a bit:

To date, the book that has had the biggest impact on the way I eat and how I think of food has been Marion Nestle's What to Eat. Like most people, prior to that book, my food information came from one of two sources. First came the explicit, though often confusing and contradictory, reports in the news. "Eggs are good for you!" "No, they're bad!" "Fat will kill you!" "Carbs are worse!" "You need more fiber!" "You need more Omega-3s!" "You need more beta-carotene!" I would read this, sort of shrug my shoulders, and go back to eating whatever I was before, not changing my habits but acquiring a nagging sense that I was doing stuff wrong.

The second source of food information comes from my family and friends, which tends to be more implicit and consistent. These lessons were more along the lines of, "Vegetables are good for you," "Don't eat too much dessert," "Don't drink alcohol." I followed these precepts (sometimes grudgingly) when living at home, later abandoned them, and find that they continue to define a part of how I feel like I "should" be eating.

Marion Nestle's book demystified... well, everything. Much of it probably counts as common sense, but for me and many other young people, that common sense needs to be learned again. I still think that her introduction should be required reading for all public schools. She explains how many calories is equal to a pound, how to healthily lose weight, why weight is important, and replaces the incomprehensible panoply of conflicting dietary guidelines with a brilliant, memorable, and effective mantra: "Eat less. Move more. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables." If you follow those three principles, everything else automatically falls into place.

Those few pages were great. The rest of the book was fascinating as well; her technique is to walk through a supermarket, with each chapter devoted to a typical aisle (breakfast cereal, juice and soda, baby products, etc.) and her analysis for how to navigate it effectively. It was all great stuff, and it had the ultimate effect of pushing me to follow her guidelines of shopping at the edges of the store - produce, meat, and dairy, far away from the processed prepackaged morass in the center.

That was just part of the story, though. Even before picking up the book, I'd started to patronize the Campbell farmer's market. At first I would pick up my lunch fruit and a few vegetables, along with the occasional pastry or fresh fish. They were replacing the canned foods that had been a sizeable part of my diet previously. Over time, though, a larger and larger slice of my dining has come from the market; increasingly I'm making mains out of their products, or growing the vegetable while shrinking the main. Best of all, this change isn't being driven by guilt or a well-defined drive to be healthy - it's because shopping the market is fun, interesting, and really tasty.

So, the progression in books from What to Eat to In Defense of Food seems to match my own personal progression. Without really noticing it, I'd been moving increasingly towards more locally grown fresh produce and spending increasing amounts of time preparing and cooking meals. It turns out that this was Pollan's plan all along!

Pollan has been writing for a while, but first rose to prominence with his recent book The Omnivore's Dilemma. In this book, he didn't just attack the typical American diet and fast food: he also swung his guns towards Whole Foods and the organic food movement, charging that organics have been subverted and are often more harmful than conventionally grown produce. How can this be? Compare a locally grown vegetable to some organic asparagus that was grown in Chile and flown to the US. The fuel involved offsets the environmental benefits of organic growth, while the mileage involved offsets any gains in taste. You are left with an expensive plant that makes you feel better without really doing anything for health or the environment.

The Omnivore's Dilemma caught people's attention, much like Nestle's earlier Food Politics; like Nestle, he was then confronted with a litany of people asking him, "Well, I see the problem, so tell me: what SHOULD I eat?" He did so, first in a New York Times Magazine article titled Unhappy Meals, and eventually in this book. As with Nestle, Pollan organizes his book around a simple mantra: "Eat food. Not too much. Mainly plants." ("Now, with 70% wordcount!") Their mutual affection seems clear when reading this book, but his background and aims are a bit different from her. Nestle is a talented nutritionist who has grown suspicious of her colleagues' obsessions. Pollan's background is in gardening and agriculture, and while Nestle is mainly interested in the link between food and health, he likes to look at the whole cycle: from soil to plant to animal to human to culture to planet. This means that, on the one hand, his book spends less time on the immediately practical question of what you should be eating. However, it also is more broadly interesting, and prompted me to think about some aspects that I had never considered before.

For example: in many studies of aboriginal populations, the absolute healthiest people belonged to cultures that primarily consumed meat, milk, and blood. We tend to think of modern food as being an unprecedented shift from traditional eating, but that "traditional eating" which started in the agricultural revolution of prehistoric times led to all sorts of health deficiencies that our species has only recently adapted to.

I'm distracting myself from the main point of his book, which is: the Western diet is killing us, and nutritionism is making it even worse. This isn't alarmist; rather, it is anti-alarmist. He goes through 150 years' worth of health claims and scientific studies, showing how we've been wrong every step of the way about which food components were good or bad. He also shows that, throughout this entire time, people who ate traditional diets of food (as opposed to "foodlike substances," my favorite phrase in this book) lived relatively long and healthy lives, while anyone pursuing contemporary nutritionist advice would sooner or later be confronted with an unpleasant reversal.

This argument is persuasive, and liberating for several reasons. First of all, like Nestle, he stresses that the big points (eating real food, minimally processed, from plants) are what you should focus on, while not being overly concerned about the dietary concern of the year - though, like Nestle, he does make an exception for trans fat, which is largely of our own creation - and, as they both point out, a food that for years was thought to be "healthy" by nutritionists. Even that, though, won't be a concern if you're mainly eating plants.

Secondly, he says that you should consider eating a traditional diet. Which one? It doesn't matter! Italian, Greek, Japanese, Mexican... as long as you're eating the way they've been eating for hundreds of years, you'll be fine. Cultures would not have survived and kept going if these diets were unhealthy. We may not currently understand why they're healthy - the French diet is often cited here - but the empirical evidence of millions of people over hundreds of thousands of years is far more compelling than any run-of-the-mill industry-funded study.

As Pollan points out, the context in which a meal is eaten - its culture, the way meals are paced, how a society relates to food (the French, for example, don't snack between meals and don't eat second helpings) - is just as, and maybe more, important than the meal itself. His book closes on a brilliant and powerful note, stressing that we've lost sight of the point - food is meant to be enjoyed and savored. I intend to do so.

I cruised through In Defense of Food, taking just under 48 hours from start to finish. It interrupted my progress through my latest Murakami journey, Sputnik Sweetheart. For some reason I'd been under the impression that this was his first novel, though I learned that was not so - he wrote it in 1999, long after his career began in the late 70's. This isn't a complaint, just an observation.

The book starts out rather slowly. Murakami is a beautiful writer even when nothing much is happening, and at times it felt like he was trying to prove that. He introduces us to his female protagonist, his male narrator, the female love interest, and the way in which they interact. It's all very languid, filled with wonderful analogies and long, drawn-out dialogs. While I enjoyed it, it didn't exactly possess a gripping narrative drive, and I felt free to put it aside for days at a time.

Things start cranking, but not until nearly the halfway point of the novel. There is finally some physical movement, the action jumps halfway around the world, and the narrative is broken up with some more innovative (though not original) devices. There was one particular point of the book where I got an intense burst of deja vu and a strong, creepy sense that I had read this before. I eventually realized that I had, only months earlier: the short story "Man-eating Cats" from Blind Willow Sleeping Woman contains an identical scene, and as the novel progressed, I realized that it was in many ways a reworking and extension of that story. This was far from obvious - again, I didn't make the connection until halfway through, but once I did it was impossible to ignore.

This gave me a better chance than I ever get to compare the short story as a form with the novel as a form. While crucial details about the plot are different, so much was shared that I could almost eliminate the story as such from comparison and look at how each worked.

To wit: the short story felt MUCH tighter and more compelling. He grabs your attention in the first few paragraphs with the same anecdote that eventually got my attention a hundred pages into Sputnik Sweetheart. The background that took those hundred pages to develop in Sputnik Sweetheart is condensed to about a page in "Man-eating Cats." What do we gain in those 99 pages? Mainly the pleasure of seeing a fine writer showing off: great turns of phrase, vivid scene-setting, ruminations on human nature and philosophy.

However, after we crossed that halfway point where the stories slid into sync and I could anticipate what would happen next, I was surprised to realize that I was actually finding the novel more interesting. While the short story was brief, it was not intimate. I didn't really feel connected with either of the main characters, and while watching what happened to them was interesting, I was reacting more to the events than the people. In Sputnik Sweetheart, just by virtue of spending more time with these characters, I had become invested in their lives and passion. As the stories moved along, I felt an extra layer of dread or excitement as I anticipated the twists that I knew were coming.

Hmmm... actually, a good analogy might be a movie adaptation of a Stephen King short story. Film-makers will add some stuff to flesh it out, and while a one-sentence summary of the plot will be identical to that of the printed version, the overall feel and message of the film may be very different.

After a while, the stories diverged again. The short story just ends, at a particularly lonely and jarring moment, while the novel pushes onwards. I hesitate to talk about "typical Murakami," but in "Man-eating Cats" I felt like Murakami's world was lurking in the background, silently pulling the strings and slowly unspooling this vaguely frightening situation. In Sputnik Sweetheart, that world actually becomes visible, and you can directly see some of the forces at work, even if you can't understand them.

The more I think about it, both works ultimately explore a theme of loneliness. This is probably more poetically expressed in Sputnik Sweetheart - I keep returning to the lovely, chilling mental image of our souls as satellites, orbiting the world, beeping out our feelings but receiving no warmth in return. In "Man-eating Cats," it is expressed more starkly... almost as if a rug is suddenly pulled away, revealing the vast gaping hole that lies underneath.

Altogether, I thought this was a fine book. I'm glad I read it after Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman - it's the mark of a great author that, when you read their stuff a second time (in whatever form) it becomes better. I'm still motivated to seek out one of his true early works. Judging from Wikipedia, Murakami's first novel available in the US was Pinball, 1973. (Available for just $400 on!) The first one that seems fairly well known, though, is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which as a bonus has an awesome title, so that may be the next one up. As usual, I want to take a break first - I feel like a kid in a candy store, and want to save some Murakami to treasure in the years to come.

Let's see, what else? Oh, let's jump to the semi-embarrassing confessions. You know that writer's strike that just finished? I'm blaming that for the fact that I've been watching Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I've never been as into this franchise as my peers. I remember T2 being a huge deal in my youth, but there was no way I would actually see an R-rated movie. It was one of those weird things where I picked up on all the cultural impact of a movie - "Hasta la Vista Baby," the sunglasses, the idea of morphing - without seeing a single minute of it.

I wouldn't actually watch Terminator until the summer of 2001, when I did a promotional Blockbuster program that let me watch a ton of movies for practically nothing. Watching Terminator 1 and 2 almost back to back, I came to the startling realization that I might be the one person in the whole world who actually thinks that the first movie is better than the second. Why, you ask? First of all, they're very different movies, and the grim Philip K. Dick-esque view of the future we get in the first movie appeals to me more than the violent, high-octane acrobatics of the second one. I also thought that the plot in the original was really clever; the second one has a quite good plot for a sci-fi movie (I especially love the mental institution aspect), but didn't grab me in the same way. Finally, John Connor is just amazingly annoying in the second one. I tend to dislike child actors in general, but he especially bothered me.

I saw T3, and remember almost nothing about it. It was fine, but didn't stick in my head the way the first two did.

So why would I watch the series? Four words, two sentences. Summer Glau. Writer's Strike. Any questions?

My favorite things about the show:
  • Summer Glau
  • Music - love that theme
  • The way all authority and most morality is stripped away in light of the impending holocaust. For example, they beat up innocent people to steal their vehicles, and you cheer for them.
  • Surprisingly clever writing. "Is that nuclear?" "No. Not really." Cameron seems to get the best lines.
  • Have I mentioned Summer Glau?
My least favorite things:
  • Sarah Connor looks too young and isn't that great an actress.
  • After twenty years, they've broken that cool real-time chronology thing they had going.
  • After just a handful of episodes, I'm sick of hearing "You're not ready to fight!" "We need to fight!" They should stop complaining or just beat people up. Watching people bickering is not entertaining.
  • I feel like I'm watching a 1980's Magical Computer plot. "Oh no, where are they going?" "Hang on for five seconds while i hack into this computer! Okay, now I have a fancy map displaying everyone's exact location and identity!"
  • In general, not addressing the technology phobia that is at the heart of the franchise.
The biggest thing I'm ambivalent about: John Connor. A lot of people say that he's too whiny. I think this is true, but he also is about 800% less annoying than in T2, so I'm willing to cut him slack.

Lost has started back up again. I'm loving this season so far. I feel like after suffering through season 2, the creators have rewarded me for my patience and started giving me a good show again... the second half of the third season was some of the best to date, and so far the fourth looks like it may be even better. The deeper they move towards the mystical heart of the island and explaining its relationship with the world, the more excited I become.

House is going strong as well. Nothing yet has topped the great arc from the first half of the season, but the few episodes so far have been good. I'm regularly impressed at their ability to pull out new situations and diseases, even after four seasons on the air. The most memorable yet was one where the victim is a psychiatrist in Antarctica, and they have to communicate over a video hook-up. (Which, by the way: isn't there supposed to be a really long lag on those things?) It reminded me of the great episode last season where House diagnoses a plane full of sick passengers... he gets out of his environment and needs to use imperfect tools to examine a problem.

They're now saying that, thanks to the strike, we won't catch the second half of the new Battlestar Galactica season until 2009. Frack!

The strike has also moved me back into the habit of watching The Colbert Report and The Daily Show. These got shoved off my schedule after I added too many dramas, but now they've back and surprisingly entertaining. The Colbert Report has been particularly sharp. I also think his interviews have gotten much better than they were when I was regularly watching during the first season; or maybe I'm just more used to their awkwardness now; or maybe guests have gotten better at playing along. Anyways. They've helped me keep my sanity during the primary season, and while I'll probably dial down my viewing time, I'll need to remember to occasionally check in.

I'm letting two magazine lapse: Newsweek and the New York Review of Books. The former because it is shallow and reductive, the latter because it is way too long and compelling... if I read every review that looked interesting, I'd never have time to read any books. Both were freebies when I pledged to KQED/NPR last year, so I don't have any regrets about receiving them, but neither will I really miss them. (I probably will occasionally seek out the New York Review online.)

More media! How about games! I've kind of been looking forward to playing a new generation of PC games, but since I'm in the middle of some console stuff, it will need to wait a while. I did, however, download the free Valve pack for nVidia owners. It contains a few small things, including an extended demo of "Portal," which won some awards last year. I've been really surprised by how good this game is. It's the same kind of revelation I felt when I first played Half-Life in 1999. Up until that point, all first-person games (well, almost all) had been brain-dead twitchfests: you ran around, shot the demons, and got bigger guns. This had no appeal to me at all. With Half-Life, that technology was finally put in service of an actual game, with an actual plot. Moving away from a pure combat focus (you didn't even get your first, primitive weapon until several minutes into the game), the emphasis of that game was on exploring your environment, solving puzzles, and figuring out just what had happened that day in Black Mesa.

Portal continues that proud tradition of reclaiming the "game" portion of the FPS genre. In doing so, it may breathe fresh life into the benighted adventure game genre. The puzzles in that game felt far more real and interesting and, above all, rewarding than anything from the later years of Sierra. Even better, it has a surprisingly keen sense of humor.

On the console front, I'm making good progress through Final Fantasy XII. I took break for several weeks from the main plot, instead focusing on side-quests and hunting for marks. Tonight I finally picked back up the story with a jaunt to Giruvegan, and was pleasantly surprised by how much quicker and more fun this is than the struggle I was having before. I feel like I'm closing in on the endgame now.

After this is done, I want to check out the latest build of Fall from Heaven. Andrew's been tantalizing me with all the cool new stuff Kael and his friends have added... I can't wait to try it for myself. I'm thinking of repeating my original run as the Kuriotates, but maybe I'll finally take the plunge and try playing an Evil civ for a change. I must admit, the vampires sound fascinating.

Beyond that? As with books and movies, there are always more games that I want to play than I will be able to. I want Bioshock, and the Orange Box, and Oblivion, and Mass Effect. The best news of all: Spore finally has a release date - September 5th in Europe, September 7th here. For years they've held the line against rabid anticipation and held off on making any promises, so for once I feel optimistic about a highly desired release.

That's it for now! Oh, and I'll be taking in the first part of the Tour of California this holiday weekend - if you're interested in cycling and live in California, check it out! It's a great time.


  1. or how about if you don't live in California, but can come out and see the Tour? Woo hoo!

  2. I was >< close to sending you a quick email about the Spore release date, before deciding that there was no way that you didn't know about it.

  3. Woo hoo, indeed!

    Haha, yeah, news about Spore seems to have rocketed through the ether at record speed. With people obsessing about it for years, it makes sense.